‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ could easily be subtitled Neil Simon’s Family in Crisis. But the esteemed playwright didn’t do that. Instead, he crafted a stellar autobiographical drama that melds whimsy with pathos, anger and, ultimately, forgiveness. He takes the time to develop the characters and spotlight their ability to deal with adversity without ripping apart the family bond.
Student dramatists at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton have opened their two-play Summer Repertory schedule with the pivotal Simon piece. Under the guidance of director Lee Soroko, the production is more than just a slice of the author’s life. It’s a case study of family life with each member having his or her specific identity. When the status quo is disrupted, chaos can happen.
Each summer, students in FAU’s Department of Theater and Dance present one non-musical and one musical. The contemporary, tune-filled production, ‘Rent’, opens July 15 and runs for three weekends. In the meantime, ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ is entertaining audiences in the Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre on the FAU-Boca campus. Five of the 10 Master of Fine Arts hopefuls in the class are featured in this excellent production filled with family fealty, love and values – traits underscored by the fact that BBM is set in 1937 – just two years before the start of World War II. Fears of Adolph Hitler’s potential advances in Europe are of particular concern to this middle-class Jewish family living in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn.
Director Soroko points out that BBM was a pivotal script for Simon. “Prior to ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’, Simon’s plays were either comedies or dramas and his attempts to combine the two were not well received by audiences or the critics.”
Cast of Brighton Beach Memoirs at Florida Atlantic University’s Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre in Boca Raton (Morgan Sophia Photography)
“This changed on Mach 27, 1983 when Brighton Beach Memoirs opened…. In this play, he was able to successfully accomplish his longtime goal of melding comedy within the structure of the drama. This play’s success ushered in a new way of writing for Simon going forward.”
In truth, the author would go on to write three plays about his early years, the so-called “Eugene Trilogy.” Biloxi Blues, which followed Memoirs, moves Eugene into the war years and Broadway Bound finds him in the post-war era seeking work in Manhattan. FAU’s performance of the Simon classic is triumphant, capping a full season of great drama. Coincidentally, BBM immediately follows the FAU troupe’s excellent production of the violent Shakespearean tragedy, Richard III – certainly, a sharp turn for this capable cast.
In the show, young Neil Simon is represented by the character Eugene Morris Jerome (Paolo Pineda), the 15-year-old son of housewife Kate (Alyssa Frewen) and garment cutter Jack (Michael Focas). His older brother, Stanley (Caleb James Williams) works to provide needed income for this cash-strapped family.
From left, Djimon Armani Williams, Alyssa Frewen, Rachel Dawson and Juliana Parris in Brighton Beach Memoirs at Florida Atlantic University’s Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre in Boca Raton. (Morgan Sophia Photography)
Also populating this overcrowded beachside house are Kate’s sister, Blanche Morton (Rachel Dawson), who moved in six years earlier when her husband died of cancer (diseases are only whispered about around the house), along with her two kids, Nora (Djimon Armani Williams), now 16, and Laurie (Juliana Parris), 12. Early pubescent Eugene, who seems addicted to the New York Yankees and cousin Nora’s breasts, does more than hint at his intention to become a writer. He is always whipping out a notebook to memorialize a comment, particularly from his mother who spends much of the play yelling, “Eugene!” followed by an order to do one thing or another.
Alyssa Frewen and Michael Focas in Brighton Beach Memoirs at Florida Atlantic University’s Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre in Boca Raton. (Morgan
The actors all do a spectacular job with their roles, displaying genuine emotion of a family enduring misfortune while maintaining love and devotion for one another. The costume and set design seem authentic and convey the proper time and place. Pineda is a perfect fit for Eugene, looking and acting every bit the energetic, curious and whimsical protagonist. Frewen is also a standout as the beleaguered Kate, whose obvious stress and worry is balanced by her inner resolve and family devotion.
In between Eugene’s generally humorous personal commentary are some truly heartfelt and heartbreaking moments, including Kate’s built-up resentment toward her widowed sister, Blanche’s indecisiveness and loneliness and Stanley’s fear and pain of disappointing his parents.As Jack, the industrious, hard decision-making patriarch of the Jerome family, Forcas – an MFA candidate as well as an Actor’s Equity member – is quietly effective.
Caleb James Williams, left, and Michael Focas in Brighton Beach Memoirs at Florida Atlantic University’s Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre in Boca Raton.
(Morgan Sophia Photography)
Memoirs works best when actors relate one-on-one. Forcas and Caleb Williams are engaging when they talk as father and older son. Parris’ depiction of Laurie is exceptional — and essential to the plot. The talented young actress portrays the “sickly” child, so mom gives her special attention that eventually takes a contentious toll on Djimon Williams. Reconciliation, though unexpected, is poignant and heartwarming.
Williams is quite capable of portraying Nora, a high school student torn between her going-nowhere status quo life and a chance to dance in a Broadway show. Decisions — or a lack of them — set off her moods, which the actress presents with ease.
Paolo Pineda, center, with Alyssa Frewen, right, in Brighton Beach Memoirs at Florida Atlantic University’s Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre in Boca Raton.
(Morgan Sophia Photography)